Cribs of Pure Genius: A Look the Top 3 Youth Academies around the World

Youth academies are the heart and soul of tomorrow’s soccer. They will be responsible for developing the athletes/artists that will delight us in a few years and are essential to the progression of the beautiful game. These schools have produced some of the most exciting players in the world - players who have given us magisterial masterpieces with the ball at their feet - forgive my inner Ray Hudson... Here are the Daily Soccer Digest's top 3 talent producers in football at the moment, in no particular order. These are institutions whose youth programs are highlighted by a combination of core values, footballing identity, well-established training methods, never forgetting the always essential passion for the game. Before you go on, another side note: If you find yourself questioning who on Earth Ray Hudson is, the following video will make your day...

1. Academia Sporting (Sporting Clube de Portugal)

The Academia Sporting, as it is known in Portuguese, is the talent hotbed of Portuguese football. It is best known for having birthed none other than Cristiano Ronaldo into the footballing world, one of the greatest players to ever play the game (don’t worry, Messi will get a mention too). He is just the crown jewel in a long line of successes, however. From the Portuguese club’s youth ranks have risen not one, but two winners of the FIFA Ballon D’or, in Luis Figo and the great CR7 himself, a feat unsurpassed by any other academy in the world. This academy provides the basis for Portuguese national teams, across all age groups, which tend to have more players from Sporting’s academy than any other club. 31% of Sporting’s current squad came out of the academy. It is the 7th academy in Europe with the most “graduates” playing in the top tier (47). It is the only academy in Europe to have received a Certificate of Quality from the internationally recognized EIC, and Sporting’s youth system also extends to hundreds of players in dozens of football schools throughout Portugal, Africa, North and South America, and Asia, with 20 new academies set to open in China, 10 by 2018. It boasts some of the most well-equipped, state-of-the-art facilities in Europe. Its training methods are uniform and effective. The staff are talented and highly professional. I have had the privilege of living and playing football there for a couple of weeks (one of the best experiences of my life, and a whole other story), and I can personally attest to all of the above. The commitment to upholding club and social values is always apparent. The academy prides itself in focusing not only on football, but also on academics and social values, which is admirable. 

Notable players: Cristiano Ronaldo, Luis Figo, Nani, Quaresma, Paulo Futre, João Moutinho, Simão Sabrosa…

2. La Masia (Futbol Club Barcelona)

La Masia, Catalan for “the farmhouse” is the legendary home of Barcelona’s youth teams, and the source of the main team’s unmistakable “tiki-taka” playing style. It gets its name from an actual 18th century farmhouse near the club’s current stadium, the Camp Nou, which remains the home of some youth players. This curiosity adds to La Masia’s mystique. Barça’s academy has produced some of the world’s best players in recent years, including, of course, the genius that is Lionel Messi, four-time FIFA Ballon D’or winner. Like Sporting’s Ronaldo, Messi too is among the very best in history. La Masia is, however, equally well-known for its “tiki-taka” philosophy (which curiously has its roots at Ajax, last but not least on this list). This culture has already given rise, under Pep Guardiola, to what was certainly one of the best teams ever. 

It seems that any kid that sets foot in that place, whether he is a Messi or only has one leg, instantly becomes a master at pass-and move. It’s much like the plague. All of Barcelona’s teams, at all age levels, play the same mesmerizing type of game, taking their opponents for an infernal ride on an infinite carousel. And then scoring. And winning. All the time. Or close enough, at least. Barcelona’s academy is the 3rd in Europe with the most players in the top tiers (57), and the club’s main squad, as of December 2015, is 40% La Masia players. Like Sporting, Barcelona owns a widespread network of international academies. Barcelona have recently constructed more modern facilities for their academy, which promise even better conditions. 

Notable players: Lionel Messi, Xavi Hernandez, Andrés Iniesta, Pep Guardiola, Sergio Busquets, Carles Puyol, countless others…

3. Ajax Youth Academy (AFC Ajax) 

The Ajax Youth Academy has consistently been recognized as one of the great schools of modern football, and much like La Masia, its main distinction is the uniform playing style it has developed across all its teams. I view Ajax as a kind of gold standard for all other youth programs. We all owe Ajax a massive thank you. That’s because the club’s academy has a special place in the game’s history for its creation of the concept of “total football” in the 1960s and 70s, in which players interchange positions to create a beautifully fluid attacking style of play. If this sounds a lot like Barcelona’s “tikitaka”, that’s because it’s pretty much its father. To this day the Ajax football academy’s mission is centered on teaching an attacking style of 4x3x3 football inspired in the original ideal. Like Sporting, Ajax achieved the impressive feat of bringing up two Ballon D’or winners, Johan Cruyff and Marco van Basten. It is also the academy with the most players in European top tier football (77).

Ajax’s has recently proven, yet again, to be an innovator in terms of youth programs. It has created the Ajax Online Academy, a unique product that aims to sell the club’s training knowledge and methods to other clubs and organizations through online video and tools to track player progress. I believe this to be a genius tool and a sure token of the quality of the Ajax Academy brand. 

Notable players: Johan Cruyff, Marco van Basten, Edwin van der Sar, Frank de Boer…

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Author: Ricardo Clemente